Life has not been easy for Nelly Akopian-Tamarina. Her early and successful career in the 1960s and early 1970s in Soviet Russia was abruptly curtailed, when she was officially banned from performing in public as a result of her sister marrying a Jew. She was eventually given permission to leave the USSR and she settled in England, but she had lost her nerve as a concert pianist. With her career now back on track, she has given three recitals at the Wigmore Hall over the past three years; this, the third, was healthily full, with a strong Russian presence, in support of this courageous artist.
Nelly Akopian-Tamarina’s teachers place her in the old, grand Russian style that exerted such a powerful influence on late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century pianism, big on gesture, rhetoric and communication, all of which infused her approach to Schumann, one of Romanticism’s most elusive composers – indeed, in his piano music, you could argue, the most elusive – requiring a non-showy but transcendent technique and the ability to change emotional gear from public bravura to the most intimate, tender, often dark poetry, where, in a huge hall with thousands in the audience, the music can seem to speak to you alone.
The main resistance I had to Nelly Akopian-Tamarina’s playing in general was that it was too slow. As one of my tutors told me after a particularly messy car-crash in a Scarlatti sonata, “Well, I suppose you could say Allegro is a state of mind”; but you do need a fair and natural turn of speed to set up the mercurial changes of mood – especially in this programme, which bristled with them – and to give the many slow passages expressive contrast. So the lovely, insouciant main theme of the Arabeske, when played with a certain deliberation, as here, failed to make its own sense against the slower episodes and, crucially, the closing passage.
The disjunction of mood and pace is even more of a challenge in Kreisleriana, and Akopian-Tamarina compensated with some broad-brush allegros that sounded a bit too effortful and unclear, and the slow passages suffered by contrast with a weight of spread chords, displacement of left-hand against the right, exaggerated expression and over-pedalling. When she had room to breathe, there was some lovely detail, sometimes relished so much it upset the flow of the music – the first ‘Einfach’ (Simple) of the Davidsbündlertänze almost ground to a halt, and the second was, if anything, even more loaded with over-expressiveness. It says much for the focus of her intuitive approach that the incisive characterisation of the Davidsbündlertänze came across as strongly as it did.
Pianists and their public have got used to a fairly restrained performing style – even in the grandest romantic repertoire – and Akopian-Tamarina’s imperious, gestural playing – arms held vertically aloft, shoulders pulling every which way, her face ecstatically turned to the audience – was an echo of another era. It’s not often that you are confronted with the musician as artwork – you take for granted that he or she is there solely to midwife the music into existence; it can be a little startling and leaves itself open to being discerned as mannered. I took a bet with myself that she’d play Träumerei (from Kinderszenen) as an encore, very slowly, con molto espressione. Wrong – she played a Chopin study: another case of confounded expectation.